31 July 2011

“One Math Museum, Many Variables”

By Kenneth Chang

[Back on 25 March 2010, I published an article on ROT on the “Spook Museum,” the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. I noted a few of the other unusual museums in the Nation’s Capital, a city of over a hundred museums of one description or another. New York City is also a great museum city, what with the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, the New York Hall of Science, the New York City Police Museum, the Children's Museum of Manhattan, the National Academy of Design, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and some others, of less . . . shall we say mass appeal, like the Museum of Sex. In that last category, though less sensational perhaps, is a new museum that’s still in the planning stages: the Museum of Mathematics—to be built not far from the Museum of Sex, curiously. I recently read a New York Times article describing the plans for the new museum and its mission, and it was interesting enough to share with readers of ROT. So I’m republishing Kenneth Chang’s report, published in the paper on 27 June 2011 [Sec. D (“Science Times”]), for your edification. ~Rick]

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For everyone who finds mathematics incomprehensible, boring, pointless, or all of the above, Glen Whitney wants to prove you wrong.

He believes that tens of thousands of visitors will flock to his Museum of Mathematics, to open in Manhattan next year, and leave invigorated about geometry, numbers and many more mathematical notions.

“We want to expose the breadth and the beauty of mathematics,” said Mr. Whitney, a former math professor who parlayed his quantitative skills into a job at a Long Island hedge fund. He quit in late 2008 with connections to deep pockets and a quest to make math fun and cool.

Two years ago, he and his team built a carnival-like traveling exhibit called the Math Midway, a proof-of-concept for the coming museum. It includes a tricycle with square wheels of different sizes that visitors can ride smoothly around a circular path ridged like a flower’s petals. An accompanying sign explains why: The undulating circular surface rises and falls exactly to offset the odd shape of the wheels, so that the tricycle’s axles—and the rider—remain at the same height as they move.

Mr. Whitney hopes that colorful, interactive props will help his cause. “If we just pluck people in the street—‘What adjectives would you use to describe math?’—very few of them would say, ‘beautiful,’” Mr. Whitney said.

His vision has enticed large contributions. The museum, which will be at 11 East 26th Street, has raised $22 million, including $2 million from Google and a lot from individual donors (yes, there’s some hedge fund money in there).

It remains to be seen whether a math museum can succeed. There are currently zero math museums in the United States, and the one small one that did exist, on Long Island, closed in 2006. There are plenty of science museums that cover math topics, but Mr. Whitney’s museum, nicknamed MoMath, will be devoid of dinosaurs and planetarium shows and will instead focus on the abstract.

“They’re a dedicated bunch of idealists,” Sylvain E. Cappell, a New York University mathematician on the museum advisory council, said of Mr. Whitney and his staff.

Without a museum yet, Mr. Whitney periodically gives walking tours to point out the mathematical wonders that can be seen around Manhattan. At 42, he exudes a boyish, geeky enthusiasm as he talks about how the branches of ginkgo trees intersect at right angles more often than those of other trees, or points out that the bolts that open and close New York fire hydrants are pentagonal, rather than the usual six-sided variety.

Three years ago, he was working with algorithms at Renaissance Technologies, a private investment firm that uses mathematical models to figure out where to put money. But after a decade there, he was looking for a new career path with a “more direct socially redeeming value,” he said.

Then, he heard that the math museum on Long Island, Goudreau, had closed. He started thinking that there should be a math museum and that he should be the one to build it.

“I really felt that I found my calling,” Mr. Whitney said. “I don’t mean to be grandiose, but it was something that felt like it really fit with my lifetime of experiences and abilities and likes and so on.”

Under his vision, MoMath will be one small way to bolster mathematics education in the United States. For years, American students have performed in the middle range on international comparisons of math skills, and an oft-heard worry is that the United States might lose its technological prowess.

While Mr. Whitney cites these dynamics as a reason for his quest, he is also a realist. Yes, the museum could serve as an intellectual catalyst and teaching resource, but it alone is not going to raise math scores. “I’m certainly not holding my breath for that,” he said.

Rather, he said, the museum’s mission is to shape cultural attitudes and dispel the bad rap that most people give math. “It’s the only field you can go to a cocktail party and talk to people with pride about how lousy you are,” Mr. Whitney said.

He hopes the museum can inspire at least a few to plunge into math more deeply. He imagines breaking down a piece of cutting-edge math research into pieces that enthusiastic visitors could help solve. “We want to be a place where that spark can ignite,” he said.

For Mr. Whitney, the spark came after a broken collarbone. When he was 14, he attended a math camp at Ohio State University—he saw it as a chance to get away from home for the summer, he said, not to learn math, a tedious subject that he found easy. During a soccer game, he collided with someone bigger, leaving him injured. With nothing else to do, he looked over the problem sets he had been ignoring.

The problems were different from the ones from school, spanning different branches of math and highlighting the connections among them. “I fell in love with mathematics that summer, and I’ve had a lifetime love affair with it ever since,” he said.

After majoring in math at Harvard and earning a Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles, he taught at the University of Michigan before joining Renaissance Technologies.

He commutes to a modest office in Midtown scattered with math puzzles and sculptures, where he and a team of about 20 brainstorm about exhibits for the museum, which right now is 19,000 empty square feet.

One idea is a large cube with square holes punched through each side, a structure known as a Menger sponge. When a visitor pulls the cube apart diagonally, the holes turn into six-sided stars. “It’s like a ‘gosh, that’s really cool’ kind of emotion people have,” said George Hart, the museum’s chief of content. “It’s a very nice example of how mathematics can give you these big surprises.”

The opening is more than a year away, but Mr. Whitney is already dreaming bigger: a larger museum, a palpable cultural impact.

“There are all sorts of myths about mathematics out there,” he said—math is hard, math is boring, math is for boys, math doesn’t matter in real life. “All these are cultural myths that we want to blow apart.”

26 July 2011


[In 1976, my parents made a trip to Japan, something they’d wanted to do for a long time. It was their habit to bring something interesting back as a sort of souvenir for me from their travels and while they were visiting Kyoto, my folks bought a Gigaku mask. Probably a modern copy or interpretation—original Gigaku masks are all mostly in temple museums and are extremely old and in delicate condition—the mask is a carved wooden image of the character Konron, possibly lacquered, with grotesque features, and painted bright red—an altogether frightening aspect. Years later, after I’d studied some Japanese theater forms (Kabuki, Noh, and a little Bunraku), I got curious about the mask and the character it represents, so I went to the Japan Society on East 47th Street and used its library to do a little research on the theater form and Konron. Here’s what I learned about this ancient performance which predates both Kabuki and Noh and has entirely disappeared in modern Japan.]

Gigaku is an ancient comic dance drama, performed outdoors mostly in temple courtyards. It was intended originally to add color and excitement to the long, solemn Buddhist ceremonies. A lost form, little is known about the performances today except that they merged mime, masked dances, and music. It’s said to have originated in the central Chinese kingdom of Wu, but, as no similar forms are known in China, it’s also quite likely it originated in west or southwest Asia. In Japanese, the Chinese character for Wu is pronounced "Go," and the dance is properly called Gogaku, "music of Go." Today, it’s known as Gigaku, "skillful” or “elegant music." Gigaku masks, among the world’s oldest, are the earliest known in Japan. Tradition has it that a Korean musician named Mimashi imported Gigaku into Japan in 612. The dances, performed to the accompaniment of a simple orchestra of flute, cymbals, tsutsumi drums, and gong, were a major part of temple ceremonies. The masked dramas were sung, danced, and mimed without spoken dialogue or poetry and there are some preserved musical manuscripts, but no record of what the dancing was like. Despite its connection to the temple, Gigaku was not necessarily solemn; the plays were “wide-ranging, explicit, and popular.” Early enactments, however, were described as unrefined and lewd, displaying foreign influences from countries all along the Silk Road, from Mediterranean Europe through North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, India, Indonesia, Indochina, to Japan.

From the 7th to 10th centuries, the Yamato court in Japan greatly admired Chinese and Korean culture, imitating the splendor of the mainland models. This involved importing and assimilating not only Buddhism and Chinese culture, but the music, dances, theater, and ceremonies, as well. In 612, Mimashi, who’d studied in China, brought Gigaku to the Japanese court and the Yamato prince-regent directed him to set up a school at the imperial court to teach music and dance to boys sent to learn the new art form. Gigaku promoted the new religion of Buddhism, which the prince-regent devotedly supported. The dance drama reached its heyday in Japan in the first half of the 8th century, during the Nara period (710-794), but by the start of the 9th century in the Heian period (794-1192), Bugaku had replaced it as the official entertainment at court and Gigaku began to decay in the 10th century because it didn’t fit the more refined Buddhism and aesthetic attitude of the new era. By the 12th century, Gigaku had lost imperial support and performances gradually ceased until the form became essentially extinct. The last recorded performances were in the Genroku period (1688-1704).

Gigaku masks are large and constructed to cover the upper part of the head, including the ears, as well as the face (unlike Noh masks, which cover only the face). Because the plays were often performed out-of-doors at court or temples, the masks were carved with highly exaggerated features so that their comic impression could still be seen in the vast courtyards. Shading and dark lines around the facial features increased the dramatic effect and hair was even glued on some masks. The size and deep carving also served to heighten the effect. As many as 14 characters, apparently influenced by designs from India, China, and Indonesia, have been identified, ranging from humans, shishi lions, bird-beaked creatures, demons, and superhumans. They are traditionally divided into four categories:

  • Kojin (“barbarian,” or foreign) characters: Chido, the “one who prepares the way”; Baramon, an Indian Brahmin; Suiko-o, a drunk foreign king; and Suiko-ju, a drunk foreign retainer
  • Gojin (people of Wu) masks: Goko, King of Wu; Gojo, Princess of Wu; Kongo, a Buddhist god of strength; Rikishi, a wrestler; Taikofu, an old man or woman accompanied by children; Taikoshi, children on a pilgrimage
  • Nankaijin (people from the southern sea) group: Konron, a villain
  • Irui (animals) characters: Shishi, a lion; Karora or Karura, king of the birds.

Extant masks, some as old as 1300 years, in monastery museums, are mostly at the temple museums of Todai-ji and Shoso-in in Nara where about 100 of the 250 known examples, including 7th-century masks brought to Japan by Mimashi, are preserved. Usually carved by Buddhist artists, exemplifying the style and technique of contemporary Buddhist sculpture, they were hewn from wood or, less often, dry lacquer, and covered in successive layers of linen and lacquer before painting. The bold, grand style of the Konron (also called Kuron) mask is particularly impressive. The largest of Gigaku masks, its weight was kept to a minimum by the use of paulownia wood. Konron’s expression stresses demonic or beastly traits, with bulging eyes, a wide nose, and visible upper row of teeth with fangs, enhanced by the bat-like ears. (In fact, he resembles nothing so much as Western images of Satan.)

In early times the savages of the southern sea were called konron, but later the term was extended to apply to slaves and pagans in general. The Gigaku Konron, however, was a lustful creature who attempted to seduce Gojo, the maiden or princess of Wu, creating great merriment by his silly, vulgar gestures and making a disheartened exit with his phallus broken off by Gojo’s protectors. Konron was a dark-complexioned man from the southern sea (K’un-lun) who represents the villain of the Gigaku play, the non-Buddhist, the “alien.”

The most complete description of a Gigaku performance is the Kyokunsho, the description of Koma Chikazane (1172-1242), a Bugaku musician, compiled in 1233 from tradition and old music books. Though it dates from 400 years after Gigaku disappeared from court performances and 500 years after the form’s highpoint, it’s considered an accurate account when taken with other historical records and the masks. There appear to have been as many as ten Gigaku pieces, all beginning with a ritualistic musical prelude and a procession of chanting monks. The procession seems to have started inside the temple and moved to some kind of stage in the courtyard, surrounded by thousands of monks and worshipers. There was no curtain or set and very few props; except for the musicians, however, all the performers wore elaborate masks and colorful costumes. The procession began with purely ritual music, then the monks paraded around and around the courtyard reciting prayers at chapels and statues. This was followed by the Gigaku procession as the masks were carried in a procession around the temple yard to musical accompaniment. Chido, in a red mask with a wide mouth, bulging eyes, a long nose, and black eyebrows and whiskers, purified the path, followed by the musicians. Then a lion (Shishi), played by two men with a brightly-colored mask whose jaw moved when the lead performer moved his head, appeared, trailed by two lion cubs (Shishiko) in friendly, smiling child masks. The lions performed “The Lions of the Five Directions,” a ritual dance accompanied by songs. After a comic interlude to teach Buddhist wisdom, Konron was performed, followed by three short pantomimes to present Buddhist lessons. After this, music would be played to conclude the ceremony and the performers would proceed back into the temple where they started.

Konron, a kind of Buddhist mystery play, had six to ten characters. First, Goko, the King of Wu, entered in a dignified mask and royal crown. He ordered the flute to be blown to announce the commencement of the main program. With musical accompaniment, Kongo, a symbol of firmness, an attribute of Buddha, entered wearing a fierce mask, and seated himself next to the king. Next Karora (or Karura), wearing a mask looking like a weird bird, entered and danced energetically. Karora may have been Garuda in Sanskrit, king of birds in Indian mythology, or he may have been the fire-eating bird or the monster bird who eats poisonous snakes—there is no proof for any of the theories. The character who entered next was Gojo, the daughter of the king, who wore a lovely girl’s mask and took up a conspicuous position on the stage. Each character’s entry was always accompanied by appropriate music.

Finally Konron, the villain, entered wearing the mask of a horrible demon. He introduced himself in an impetuous dance, focusing his eyes on Gojo. Enchanted by the girl, he beat a phallus-shaped stick with a fan, dancing a violent, impulsive, seductive dance at the end of which he caught hold of Princess Gojo. At this point, Rishiki, a wrestler, opened the gate, and Kongo, wearing a mask suggestive of strength, walked onto the stage, clapping his hands vigorously and performing a dance of entrance. With the assistance of Rikishi, he grappled fiercely with Konron and finally suppressed him, rescuing Gojo from her predicament. Putting a rope on Konron’s phallus stick, he swung it about, bending it and knocking it around. Religiously, the piece, however comic, was a commandment against lust. Konron was the incarnation of lust, the obstacle to enlightenment; Gojo, the medium for enlightenment; Rishiki and Kongo, primarily guardians of Buddhism.

Next, the three pantomimes were presented: Baramon, a warning against lust; Taiko, a lesson on how to hold rites for the dead; Suiko, a commandment against drunkenness. When the dramatic pieces were finished, parades of dancers were staged as a finale. The whole Gigaku program ended with a procession of joyous music.

Nomura Mannojo, a Japanese director and producer, has revived the ancient tradition of Gigaku masked performance in Japan. During research across the Silk Road, Nomura, a scion of a famous Kyogen family in Japan, discovered the connections between the Gigaku masks of Japan and other large-mask traditions in China, Tibet, and India. Informed by folk entertainments and literary scholarship, he researched remnants of reference books and picture scrolls. He studied numerous traditional entertainment and music that reflected the diversity of Japan's various regions. Based on this research he has organized a troupe, Ethnos, whose dancers come from several countries and in Gigaku masks perform dance dramas drawn from Japanese tradition. Nomura has recreated some of the historical masks for his dance troupe. There are reportedly other, amateur troupes, many at universities such as the Heisei Gigaku Troupe at Tenri University in Nara, that have engaged in putative revivals of Gigaku—though, like Nomura’s company, they have to base their reconstructions on speculation and imagination since so little record of the form has existed for over 1000 years.

[The principal sources for this article, supplemented by other research, were: Yoshinobu Inoura and Toshio Kawatake’s The Traditional Theater of Japan (New York: Weatherhill, 1981); Benito Ortolani’s article "To Court and Shrine from the World: Gigaku and Bugaku" in Samuel Leiter’s Japanese Theater in the World (New York: Japan Society, 1997); Seiroku Noma’s Masks, No. 1 Arts & Crafts of Japan (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, c. 1957); and Kyotaro Nishikawa’s Bugaku Masks (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1978).]

21 July 2011

The Relation of Theater to Other Disciplines

Anyone who’s taught arts classes in primary or secondary schools will have encountered the question of what value teaching theater, visual art, music, or dance has in a modern education. If it doesn’t come from a parent, it might come from another teacher—probably one who teaches math or history. Sometimes it even comes from a student. Why bother to teach a subject that seems so impractical in the crowded and cash-starved curriculum of an American elementary or high school? A very small number of people will actually make their lives in the arts; for the rest of us, they are little more than a pastime or relaxation (and, many questioners will add, if only to themselves, mostly for the so-called elite). Why spend the time and money, devote the faculty and the class hours to something like that.

About a year ago, I argued that the arts are a vital part of a liberal arts education and that a liberal arts education is a value all its own (see my argument on ROT, “Liberal Arts in the Real World,” 24 July 2010). I also made an argument for the importance of the arts in society (“Degrading the Arts,” 13 August 2009). However related, those are different issues. And as for the sense that the arts are somehow a province of the leisure classes and the highly educated . . . well, if that’s what you think, then I probably can’t address you here. It’s not really relevant here anyway, since I’m going to talk about arts in the schools where they touch students of all economic strata and backgrounds. I’m going to look at the educational worth of arts classes, not so much their social value—though, I’m sure you can see, those do overlap. What I’m going to propose is how teaching the arts, specifically theater in this instance, benefits the learning of other subjects with arguably more practical usefulness. Here’s my premise: Theater has a relation to other academic disciplines such that theater can be used to inform and enhance the learning of those other subjects. They are cognate fields, the way language and history can be: the study of, say French language and literature can inform the study of history in many ways beyond simply understanding some words and terms like entente or coup d’état.

I think it’s pretty clear that theater, like sports, teaches several beneficial skills with which young people would be well armed as they move into the general society. I’m considering now not so much the classroom teaching of theater as the producing of plays in schools with student casts and crews. In whatever part of the production students are involved, they learn how to work in concert with others to accomplish a great task, one that no single student could achieve alone. The company learns to interpret and follow instructions, some very precise and others more general, that require them to bring to bear their own understanding and knowledge and seek the necessary resources, both intellectual and concrete, to resolve. Producing a play requires the practical application—and often the adaptation—of knowledge and skills gained in other fields and even at the greatest level of experience, student theater participants must learn to meet new challenges and expand their skills and talents to solve new problems. In my companies, at least, the student artists and technicians were often called upon to research previously unexplored fields of knowledge or to apply logic and imagination to an alien situation in order to understand what they were doing or what it meant in the context of the production. Though I never made it a criterion that the plays I directed in schools be great literature, I did demand that the scripts be good theater—so the students were exposed to pieces of dramatic literature that they probably hadn’t encountered before but were worth knowing, introducing them often not just to unknown plays but unfamiliar writers. (I also tried to introduce my students to different forms of theater so that they weren’t stuck in the impression that all plays take place in that peculiar room with fixed seats at one end and an empty space raised up on a platform at the other, with a huge hole in between the two. That lesson, however, is meta-theatrical, I suppose.) Finally came the wonderful lesson of learning what it’s like to work very hard over a long time, sometimes suffering hardships, small failures, or disappointments, to experience the sense of success, both communal and individual, at the end. These lessons don’t so much dovetail with other disciplines as underpin or enable better learning across the curriculum.

The most obvious confluence of disciplines with theater occurs in the other arts, so let’s address those first. Of course, if there’s a question about the point of teaching theater and the arts in schools, then the question logically extends to dance, visual art (including, among others, painting, sculpture, graphics, and photography), and music, too. Still, let’s have a look at how the arts all support one another, at least pedagogically. First, as we’ll encounter in other disciplines, too, the various fields of artistic endeavor serve as subject matter for lots of plays, like Art and the recent Red, two plays about painting. In Tennessee Williams’s In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, a character much like Jackson Pollock, a friend of the playwright’s, has a scene in which he discusses the color theory of painter and art teacher Hans Hofmann (another friend of Williams’s, and of Pollock’s). In another Williams play, Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis?, two women talk at length about “plastic space,” also a concept borrowed from Hofmann. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George explores the artistic impulse in two painters across a century: the (fictionalized) French Impressionist Georges Seurat in the 1880s and his great-grandson, George, an American artist, in the 1980s. In his paired one-acts The Stendhal Syndrome, playwright Terrence McNally wrote about Michelangelo’s David in Full Frontal Nudity and a Bernstein-like conductor in Prelude & Liebestod. In Edward Albee’s Occupant, a reporter interviews sculptor Louise Nevelson; Robert Lepage and Ex Machina’s Geometry of Miracles focuses on architect Frank Lloyd Wright; and another McNally play, Master Class, presents opera star Maria Callas (conducting the titular master voice class) as its subject. The most famous play about dance and dancers is, of course, A Chorus Line. (Just as there are many movies about movie-making, there are scores of plays about life in the theater.)

More significantly, I think, the same basic principles of aesthetics apply to all the arts in one way or another. This isn’t the place to go into a discussion of aesthetic theory, which is far too complex to address here anyway, but I think it’s self-evident that concepts of beauty in, say, painting, are true in theater as well, if in no other application than scene painting and costume decoration. Sculpture (and architecture, too, often) is evident in the set design and even scenery construction and just as sculptors have to consider the play of light on their creations, the lighting designer has to make the same adjustments in the concept from the reverse perspective. By the same token the techniques of artistic creativity transfer from the other arts to theater pretty directly in most cases. The music for a theater performance may have different requirements than compositions for a concert or a pop tune, but the way the artist creates the piece is a parallel process. Art movements and schools, such as Surrealism or Expressionism, have their parallels in theatrical production, both in playwriting and in production. (It may be hard to contemplate, but along with Dada painting and sculpture, there are Dada plays, too. Consider, for instance, The Gas Heart by Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of the movement: it was conceived, in perfectly Dadaistic fashion, to be impossible to stage!)

The various arts had parallel historical development, too, of course. Painted scenery evolved the same way and at the same time as perspective in painting did, for instance. At various times in theater history, the same artists who were making innovations in painting and sculpture were also applying their new ideas to the stage (and to theater posters and handbills as well). If fashion design can be called an art—it’s certainly a craft, in any case—theater history records that the progress of costume design parallels the development of clothing design. Moreover, the various arts frequently interact in a theatrical production which incorporates many individual artistic genres and forms even under the simplest and most traditional practice. If we start to examine the later and more innovative presentations, the expansion of the arts and the variation in their uses can seem endless. Computer graphics and CGI; projections, holograms, and video; electronic and digital sound and music are all appearing on stages around the world and the palette from which writers and theater-makers are drawing is virtually boundless. Tennessee Williams envisioned a plastic theater where dramatists construct plays using all the arts of the stage together, relying not just on words as the foundation of the performance text with sound, lighting, and design as enhancements to the text, but a collaboration among the arts which the playwright, as a kind of multimedia conductor, uses to make his or her images. Today, that kind of plasticity has extended beyond the traditional stage arts to which Williams referred to incorporate all the arts and even the technology contemporary artists are also using to push the boundaries of their fields.

Perhaps the next-easiest fields with which the study of theater can coincide are history/social studies and the social sciences. History, of course, is the subject of a huge portion of dramatic literature starting with The Persians of Aeschylus, the first known history play (472 B.C.E). We should acknowledge that some history and documentary plays are more faithful to reality than others—Schiller’s Mary Stuart shows Queens Mary of Scotland and Elizabeth of England meeting at Fotheringhay Castle though in truth the two cousins never met—but they all can be ways of launching a discussion of the events, personalities, and ideas depicted. Searching out the differences between the historical record and the presentation in the play can be an excuse for research (an invaluable skill every student should learn and practice as often as possible), and even plays with mixed fictional and factual elements, such as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, can throw light on or elucidate what otherwise might seem dry, dead details. (One wonderful play that’s a mash-up of historical, literary, and imaginary characters and situations is Tom Stoppard’s Travesties which places James Joyce; Lenin; Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dadaism; and an actual minor British diplomat, Henry Carr, in Zurich at the same time in 1917—where, in fact, they all were—along with Gwendolyn—as in Fairfax—and Cecily—as in Cardew—during the preparation of an amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest: literature, politics, art, history, and theater all twisted together!) We may disagree mightily with Rolf Hochhuth’s contention in The Deputy that Pope Pius XII was complicit in the extermination of Europe’s Jews, but examining the play permits the class to look at a still-heated (because Pius is on track for sainthood) aspect of World War II. (That Hochhuth’s text is drawn from historical documents, which he may or may not have unfairly manipulated, only makes The Deputy an even better platform for historical research.)

There is also another way that theater can throw light on the study of history—by examining a play in its historical context. For instance, Anouilh’s Antigone, which on its face is a retelling, with some 20th-century anachronisms, of the Greek myth of the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta defying her uncle, Creon, the successor to the throne of Thebes, as previously told by Sophocles. But if we consider that Anouilh wrote the play in 1943, while France was under Nazi occupation during World War II, and we know that the playwright was making a statement to his countrymen, the play is a metaphor for the political situation at the time, with Antigone representing the French who resisted the German domination and Creon as the representative of the Third Reich and Polynices, the dead brother Antigone wants to bury, representing the resistance fighters and partisans actively opposing the occupation. Teachers of history can take a similar approach to Miller’s The Crucible, written in 1953: it’s either just an account of the 17th-century Salem witch trials and a study in community hysteria, or it’s a comment on McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities of the 1950s by a playwright who was a bitter opponent to any infringement on free expression and free speech. Both plays are comments on history without actually being accounts of it.

The very impetus for the modern history play and, indeed, stage Realism as a theatrical style beginning in the late 19th century was the attempt to portray the way other peoples and cultures live and behave, the essence of sociology. We can learn something of the way certain Irishmen live from reading John Millington Synge’s plays, the thinking of some Germans by reading Schiller’s The Robbers or Intrigue and Love, or Frenchmen of the 17th century by reading almost any of Molière’s comedies. Aside from the fact that those writers were depicting milieux they were themselves observing in real time, plays, more than almost any other form of representation, distill human behavior and thought so that it communicates—that’s what theater does best, after all—directly, straightforwardly, and in a human voice. Last March in Brooklyn, the Iranian Theater Festival presented plays by writers both living in Iran and in exile, plus plays from Iranian-Americans. Iranian culture, the writers lament, has been overshadowed by the political and ideological conflict between their country and ours, so the festival was an attempt to overcome the stereotypes and preconceptions by bringing Iranian and Iranian-American voices directly to American audiences. The world learned more about conditions in communist Eastern Europe or apartheid South Africa from the plays of Vaclav Havel, Janusz Glowacki, Athol Fugard, and Mbongeni Ngema than all the essays, news reports, and lectures combined, I believe—at least we learned it more pointedly and more earnestly. I’ll never forget the experience I had watching The Square by Eimuntas Nekrosius, a Lithuanian writer and director, in 1991, just after the disintegration of the Soviet empire. The play’s the story of a former political prisoner who literally dies because he doesn’t know how to be free. Freedom, Nekrosius said, cannot merely be legislated or declared, it must also be learned and prepared for—but he said it through the medium of a play and made it more palpable than any political essayist could have. Drama from outside the U.S., especially from outside the West, presents differing views of the world from those to which we’re accustomed; the works of Wole Soyinka, Nobel laureate in literature from Nigeria; Derek Walcott, poet and playwright from St. Lucia; or Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt, another Nobel winner, for instance, show us not only some of their worlds, but ours as well—albeit from an uncommon perspective. On this continent, there’s a growing body of work by Native American playwrights and performing troupes like Hanay Geiogamah and the Native American Theatre Ensemble that have adapted our European theater forms—most American Indian cultures had no innate theater tradition; the artists have incorporated Indian music, singing, dance, and imagery to fashion a Native American theater—to depict the world as they see it.

The dramatists I’ve mentioned above were mostly dissenters and social critics, but plays can reflect a specific society’s prevailing values, too. The Eisenhower years in the Mid-West are evoked with tenderness and care in almost all of William Inge’s plays, some sad and sweet, like Picnic, and others not as pleasant, as in Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty is an opening to talk about the labor movement of the 1930s in the United States and Awake and Sing speaks to the fears and concerns of the urban poor during the Depression. Plays like these sketch a whole universe that’s gone from us now, captured, perhaps more like an impressionistic photo, at the moment of its most deeply felt presence. Good artists have a greater sensitivity than we ordinary folks; great ones can make the rest of us feel some of what they felt. History books and social studies texts can’t do that most of the time. Want your students to feel some of what it was like living in the Jim Crow North? Have them read Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun. The Jim Crow South? How about Alice Childress’s Wedding Band or Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy? Want to tackle the Evolution-Creationism split (if you dare)? What’s a better start than reading Inherit the Wind? On other shores, students can see some of what the Thatcherite ‘80s was like in rust-belt Britain from Jim Cartwright’s Road or an aspect of imperial China in Lao She’s Teahouse. This list is endless—but it is important to note that the plays of an era and a place are often among the best windows into that society. I can tell you from personal application that as an actor preparing a role, I often found my best input in the plays of the time and place about which I’m trying to learn.

The social sciences such as psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science, and economics offer a similar opportunity for theatrical application. Plays based on psychology—almost any thriller or murder mystery, for instance (consider Gaslight/Angel Street)—are among the most common stage entertainments. (One humorous take on the field of psychoanalysis, dating from 1915 when the practice was new and faddishly popular, is Susan Glaspell’s one-act satire Suppressed Desires.) Almost all drama after the late 19th century, with the advent of Realism, is constructed on the basis of what are or were believed to be psychological truths. Even plays founded on what we now believe is an erroneous understanding of the emotions and the mind can be a useful window in the history of the field. Take, for instance, A Doll House by Henrik Ibsen, who subscribed to some mistaken ideas of human science. Written in 1879, the play requires Nora to abandon her children when she leaves her home because she’s afraid they will inherit her moral sin, a belief considered scientific at the time. (Krogstad has a similar tale of moral turpitude having consequences in a loved one.) In a similar vein, Dr. Rank is suffering from “tuberculosis of the spine,” the consequence of a dissolute life. Medical scientists of the day believed that there was a connection between moral failing and physical illness, the latter being a manifestation of the former. (In Ghosts, 1881, we learn that Oswald Alving has inherited syphilis from his father, though we now know that that is medically unlikely, but it can be seen as a physical inheritance of his father’s moral corruption.) So not only do we see that Ibsen was basing his plots on what was understood at the time to be scientific fact, however mistaken, we also see how the field has developed over the ensuing decades.

The whole of Konstantin Stanislavsky’s acting theory, the basis for much of 20th-century western acting including the famous Method, is founded on his understanding of psychology (Stanislavsky studied the work of Pavlov and French psychologist Théophile Ribot). Neither modern drama nor modern performance could exist without some application of psychology. Anthropology, a field that really began in the mid-19th century and became almost a public obsession in the early years of the 20th century, as photography and motion pictures made it possible to see what distant cultures actually looked like, fed the impulse toward Realism and Naturalism as well as antiquarian and culturally accurate sets and costumes. So did sociology, its companion study. Even plays dating back before Realism were staged with what was considered historical accuracy, such as the 1801 production of Schiller’s Maid of Orleans staged by Augustus Wilhelm Iffland at the Berlin National Theater, one of the first known to attempt historically accurate sets and costumes. Moreover, just as the political history of humankind is a dominant subject for drama, the history of humans themselves is also at the base of much modern drama. (In a tongue-in-cheek application of this, Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth purports to trace the development of humans from the invention of the wheel to the eve of World War II, with some references to Genesis and the phylogeny of mammals. The central family in Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is named Antrobus, from the Greek word for ‘human’: anthropos, the same word from which ‘anthropology’ is derived.) Studying the theatre of a particular culture or historical period is a vivid way to determine the socioeconomic status of the population, political attitudes, and lifestyles of distant peoples.

Political science and economics are less common among subjects for drama, especially the second. There are, of course, quite a few plays about politics and politicians (Fiorello!, 1776, The Best Man, plus any number of mono-dramas from Lyndon to the recent Thurgood), and it’s hard to argue against the contention that politics informs almost all modern plays (and not a few classics) in some way or another. Even a play as old as Born Yesterday can be a primer for civics and the process of government (as well as a sometimes backhanded vocabulary lesson); in fact, the play’s plot, even 65 years later, is a surprisingly (and dishearteningly) accurate treatise on political corruption. Most history plays are also political plays, and so are plays like Waiting for Lefty, The Cradle Will Rock, Execution of Justice, The Crucible, and even Macbeth or Henry VIII. Economics as a academic discipline may be hard to find on stage, but everyday economics are at the foundation of most modern drama. If power and control (a form of politics) are not at the center of the play, then money probably is. And if the question of money or power aren’t the main concern of the playwright, then they will be of one or more of the characters—something with which the actors will have to contend. Beyond the use of politics or economics as subject matter or the source of characters, almost all Western drama is about human interaction in search of a goal, the fundamental definition of politics: Oedipus’s goal in Oedipus Rex is to find the murderer of King Laius, his predecessor, and that hunt drives the action of the play as Oedipus “interacts” with the other characters; Hamlet must prove that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father and in his search he enlists Horatio, Gertrude, Leontes, Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the Players. And just as the play revolves around the pursuit of a goal, each character, as any actor or acting student will tell you, must also pursue an objective which will make her or him interact with others. (I shouldn’t overlook the fact that economics has a great deal to do with the production of a play, but practical play production is not the main topic of my current discussion. We also should acknowledge that politics, both subtle and overt, is and has been a factor in the presentation of theater throughout history, from the closing of the theaters in 17th-century England under Puritanism to the current focus on plays concerning wars in the Mid-East and Asia, the restriction of civil and human rights, the treatment of prisoners and suspects, and other topics or events happening around us now. Consider how political questions effect what plays can be presented and what plays people will attend even when official censorship isn’t an issue.)

With respect to English classes, the most obvious correlation is that theater offers a canon of great literature to complement the non-dramatic works, both fiction and non-fiction, the students read. Almost every middle and high school English curriculum includes a Shakespeare play, and many incorporate other plays as well. (In the ninth-grade English classes I taught, for example, we read Raisin and Inherit the Wind as well as Romeo and Juliet.) Another aspect of English classes in primary and secondary schools is writing or composition, and play scripts are an alternative form of writing students can benefit from exploring. Engaging in creative, descriptive, and analytical writing about theater experiences and the processes used to create them engages students’ imaginations as well as their various compositional skills. Writing a play itself, as distinguished from writing a short story or an essay, has different requirements and obligations for the writer; the discipline isn’t the same. (As evidence, I offer the fact that some of the best writers and poets have turned out to be terrible playwrights. Consider Mark Twain, for instance, who was enamored of theater but never wrote a successful play. In late-19th-century France, a selection of the country’s most famous and respected writers formed what they called the Group of Hissed Authors because they had all failed as dramatists: Gustave Flaubert, Alphonse Daudet, Ivan Turgeniev, Émile Zola, and Edmond de Goncourt.) Though the creative principles are similar, even analogous, the practices are different. The differences include the necessity to tell the whole story and lay out the entire theme in speech and action. A story writer can rely on narration and exposition; the whole piece can take place inside someone’s head, but a playwright has to reject that device (though it has been used on stage, it’s inherently undramatic) in favor of more direct development. Further, a novel can be experienced through the eyes of one character, but a play is experienced through the eyes of each spectator. Poetry and some novels and stories can be written in formal or imprecise language, but modern scripts are conversational; even the prose of Tennessee Williams or August Wilson, though it’s often lofty and lyrical, sounds like ordinary speech.

A portion of dramatic literature comprises adaptation of prose literature and comparing the differences can be revealing. Sometimes the changes from literary form to stage text make it easier to see the main points, since drama often distills them into a more direct form, and sometimes those changes alter the way the material is received; both results can be revealing to students of literature. What did John Steinbeck or Carson McCullers do to transform their novels Of Mice and Men and Member of the Wedding into successful stage plays? Another pedagogical approach is to assign the students to make a stage adaptation of some non-dramatic material—a poem (The Wild Party—either version or both), a short story (The Good Doctor), a newspaper report (Equus), a cartoon (Feiffer’s People), a comic strip (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown)—to discover how both forms work.

Just as the language of a play script must be speakable, the actions the writer devises must be performable. Certainly there are technical devices that can help create magic on stage, but unlike movies, the stage has certain limitations of human capability and gravity. Whatever a playwright creates, an actor will have to embody it. We don’t have to obey the Three Unities anymore, but the confines of the theater building and the performance space limit what can be accomplished before a live audience—some of the difficulties Julie Taymor had with Spider-Man came from trying to turn the playhouse into a movie screen and a concert arena—and the practicalities put a burden on the writer. So does the conventional length of a play at two hours or so. (One-acts can be anywhere up to 90 minutes generally.) A novel can go on as long as the writer wants, theoretically, but it’s a rare play that keeps an audience engaged for much longer than Shakespeare’s “two hours’ traffic of our stage.”

Stageable plays also have to be active. Prose can be ruminative, descriptive, stream-of-consciousness, but a play has to move (though the movement can be internal). This and the other limitations on a playwright’s free expression are why every writer isn’t a playwright, and the investigation of the genre can be both enlightening and practical for writing students. When I taught theater to middle-schoolers, a fourth-grade teacher asked my boss to lend me out so I could oversee a writing project in her English lessons. Her students had been exploring various writing forms, including poetry (haiku) and narrative, and she wanted to introduce them to playwriting. I devised a program by which the 10-year-olds formed teams to compose one-act plays which were then staged first for each other, then the other fourth-grade classes, and finally in the school theater for the whole primary school and it turned out to be one of the most exciting and enjoyable experiences of my teaching career. After introducing the program and modeling it in a one-class session, I offered only technical assistance and advice and didn’t interfere with the students’ imaginative and creative flights. Imagine: when you’ve written a poem or a short story, all you get to do in the end is read it (or hear it read) aloud, but when you write a play, it can be performed! Schoolwork plus playacting—how can you beat that combination?

Drama in or translated from foreign languages, whether classics from Greek or Latin literature or more recent plays from modern languages, clearly have the same attributes as those I mentioned in connection with sociology and anthropology: the study of the world from someone else’s perspective. In the original languages, obviously, plays provide practice in reading a form of the language meant to be spoken aloud. Even the classic plays provide opportunities to encounter French, German, or Spanish even in a literary form—but one intended to be spoken rather than read. (What better way to develop an accent than reading scenes in class?) Comparing the original with an English translation can highlight how speakers of the two languages sometimes think differently in subtle ways and how the languages themselves differ. As an actor or director, I always tried to get the original text of a play on which I was working to see if there was information or clues in the original that was lost, as it were, in translation. A subtle but, I think, illuminating example is the title of Samuel Beckett’s famous play, Waiting for Godot. In French, the language in which Beckett originally wrote the play (which he subsequently rewrote—he didn’t translate it from French—in English), the title is En attendant Godot, which means “while waiting for Godot.” The play isn’t about waiting; it’s about what Vladimir and Estragon do while they’re waiting. In acting terms, the first is a state of being—that is, inactive—and the second is about action. In another French play, I discovered that a whole scene is intended to be funny because of a pun that doesn’t translate into English. (It had to do with the fact that in French, the same word, fond, means ‘fund’ of money and ‘heart’ of an artichoke.) There was no way to get the joke back into the English dialogue, but at least we knew the scene was light and silly in mood—something that wasn’t obvious in the translation. When I was doing a production of Chekhov’s The Wood Demon I learned that in the Russian text, the various ways one character addresses or refers to others were very revealing about the relationships, and none of that was in the English version because we don’t have the levels of address Russians do. It turned out to be very useful for the actors to know when they were developing their inter-character interactions on stage. For the language student or the student of a foreign culture, these are telling subtleties.

For language classes themselves, it can be a useful and enjoyable exercise to assign the students to write dialogues or even short playlets—and then perform them. When I was a high school theater teacher, the German teacher, when she learned that I speak German, asked me to come to one of her classes to help with just such a project. Not only did it get the students thinking (and writing) in conversational German, rather than the more formal style of the text books and literature they were otherwise using, but it was clearly a fun experience for them. A spoonful of sugar, as Mary Poppins might have sung, helps the learning go down. (I also remember when I was a Russian language student myself and we had to do a project that culminated in a public presentation. A classmate and I decided to write a scene of the “as if” type: as if Lenin and Marx had met. After researching some of the men’s writings for topics they had in common, we assembled the dialogue. We rehearsed it like one of Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds TV shows—which hadn’t actually come along yet—and read it to the rest of the class. Now, I loved studying languages in those days—but this was among the most fun I ever had in a language class: the research, the writing, the rehearsing, and finally the performance.)

Two other popular fields for dramatic source material are philosophy and its allied discipline, religion. Just as theater is affected by art movements, literary and philosophical developments also turn up in dramatic literature. Many of Stoppard’s plays, for instance, focus on the questions ‘What do we know?’ and ‘How do we know it?’ (they are the main focus of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), but for a comic romp with specific philosophical underpinnings, there’s Jumpers, one of whose central characters is a professor of moral philosophy preparing a lecture on “Man—good, bad or indifferent.” Plays based on philosophical tenets can demonstrate different ways of expressing ideas, examining subjects, or seeing the world. Sartre’s No Exit, for example, is the epitome of Existentialist writing (which can also be seen in the works of Albert Camus and Jean Genet). All of Beckett’s Absurdist plays are salted with philosophical notions and tenets, but Waiting for Godot is especially rife; it would be a wonderful exercise in the history of philosophy to try to pick out the statements in the play that correspond with the philosophical movements from Heraclitus of Ephasus (530-470 B.C.E.) to Existentialism and Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). A play that deals with both philosophy and religion is David Ives’s New Jerusalem, which depicts the contention among the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, the Jewish community in Amsterdam, and the Dutch Christian leadership of the town. Many scenes are debates following some of Spinoza’s then-controversial ideas for which he was excommunicated by his synagogue’s elders.

The principals of philosophy, however, are also an analytical tool for examining dramas. This is especially true of logic, the application of which discipline can promote precise thinking and rigorous critical analysis. Godot not only contains specific statements of some of the philosophies to which Beckett subscribed, but the play can be discussed in terms of many of those beliefs—and it has also been analyzed for its implications about Christianity, especially Catholicism, the faith in which Beckett was raised. (There is even a specifically religion-oriented essay, Charles S. McCoy’s “Waiting for Godot: A Biblical Appraisal.”) Tennessee Williams, who was raised Presbyterian—his grandfather Walter Dakin, on whom the playwright doted and in whose home he spent his childhood, was a prominent minister—but converted briefly to Catholicism, was often the target of disapproval of the Catholic Church for the violence and sexuality in his plays and films. In 1960, Williams’s brother, Dakin Williams, a devout Catholic, wrote an exegesis of his brother’s work in “Is Tennessee Williams a ‘Catholic’ Playwright?” in response to his church’s rejection of his famous brother’s writing. Other forms of philosophy, including logic, are indispensable tools for examining the plots and structures of many plays—including, unsurprisingly, most murder mystery plays. (The clues in Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, for instance, can be assembled using logic and reason. Tom Stoppard, however, likes to feed us clues that add up to the wrong conclusions, a plot factor in Arcadia.)

Plays that touch on religion or use it as a theme, though they are often controversial, can provide topics for discussion and examination. Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi and Behzti (‘dishonor’ in Punjabi), a British play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, a Sikh woman, are politically-infused examples; both have been suppressed and precipitated violence among protestors. The new Tony Award-winning musical, The Book of Mormon, considers the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a light-hearted and irreverent, but not disparaging, way (unlike, say, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant from 2003, which was unapologetically critical). There are, of course, many religious plays, in the sense that the plays were written expressly for teaching or demonstrating aspects of a particular faith, much the way Brecht wrote his Lehrstücke as instructional tracts for young communists; Purim plays and Christmas pageants are examples of this kind of theater, as are medieval passion, mystery, and miracle plays. There are also dramas on religious themes and with religious subjects that are meant for the general public expressing an argument (or, sometimes, a counterargument). In the wake of The Deputy came two Catholic plays which purported to be responses to Hochhuth’s allegations against Pope Pius: God’s Deputy (El Vicario de Dios) by Spanish playwright Juan Antonio de Laiglesia and Rev. Edward A. Molloy’s The Comforter, an American reaction. In fact, examining all three plays together, along with their critical and popular reception (digging up reviews is a research project), would be a fascinating basis for discussion of religion, faith, and religious institutions.

The most difficult discipline with which to find parallels with drama are the natural (or “hard”) sciences and math, but there are connections. (Not a small amount of both math and technology, an attribute of science, plays an important part in theatrical production, of course. Designing and constructing sets, laying out a floor plan, making scale models, designing and hanging lights, installing sound equipment, and many other backstage tasks all require mathematical knowledge and precision and a practical familiarity with principals of physics. Using rulers and compasses to measure and divide space, reinforcing concepts of measurement, fractions, and proportion as a preliminary to building sets or models is not only a practical method of getting students to use and practice math skills, but it’s a good deal more fun to do than plain old exercises from a textbook.) There are, first, quite a few plays that use science and math as a subject, such as Complicite’s recent Disappearing Number, about the pure mathematical theories of Srinivasa Ramanujan and G. H. Hardy in the years around World War I, and Proof by David Auburn is about the legacy of a mathematician to his daughter. The new play by Richard Bean, The Heretic, centers on a university lecturer in earth sciences who’s skeptical about climate change, a scientific topic that’s also political. Another politico-scientific play is Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, which relates the fictionalized inside story of the mysterious meeting in 1941 at which the two great physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg discussed the possibility of a German atomic bomb. (Copenhagen is also an argument play, so it bears on logic as well as nuclear physics.) A recent hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (that’s also played Off-Broadway in New York) is Baba Brinkman’s hip-hop performance, Rap Guide to Evolution, conceived originally for the 2009 bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth.

Science creeps into many plays that aren’t ostensibly about science or technology. I return to The Skin of Our Teeth, for example, which makes frequent references to the phylogenic relationships among mammals and the ontogeny of humans. Some numbers theory appears, to comic effect, in Jumpers as well—corresponding, coincidentally, to the serious applications of the same concepts in Disappearing Number. (The late Michael Kirby, a professor of mine at NYU, was a Structuralist who wrote plays that conformed to predetermined patterns, some of which were numerical. I don’t believe his plays are published, however.) Examining these plays and analyzing the texts is an exercise in precision thinking and a method of reasoning conceptually and abstractly.

A field that combines the social and natural sciences is the somewhat controversial discipline of sociobiology and its ally, evolutionary psychology. I won’t get into the debate concerning the validity of these concepts, which posit that social behavior, both human and animal, is genetic and hereditary rather than totally learned and cultural in origin. (Evolutionary psychology makes the parallel claim about psychological traits like language, memory, and perception.) As genetic traits, social behavior is affected by natural selection. Dramatically, we can find examples of this belief in plays that juxtapose animal behavior with human, or primitive human socialization with modern society. (We can also find a simpler application of these concepts in the acting technique of finding animal traits in human characters. An actor might, for instance, play Stanley Kowalski as a bear-like man or Hedda Gabler as a lioness.)

In literature, the notion of a parallel between animal and human behavior is as old as Western civilization, of course. Fabulists from Aesop to La Fontaine to James Thurber have used animal characters to make sometimes unsubtle comments on human foibles. Rajiv Joseph’s current Broadway offering, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, uses the figure of a tiger to comment on the actions of the humans caught up in the aftermath of war. A play that draws on the idea that human social interaction has evolutionary origins to which we might return if the social compact were abrogated, on the model, say, of Lord of the Flies, is John Bowen’s After the Rain, a play that depicts the remnants of modern society after a Bible-like flood. Bowen shows us a micro-society reforming around a charismatic leader as the fundaments of human behavior reassert themselves after centuries of accumulated socialization are suddenly stripped away. A little of this kind of examination is also seen in Skin of Our Teeth, especially in Act Two when the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals convenes in Atlantic City. Wilder is implicitly linking the behaviors of other animals with those of humans by assembling the Subdivision Humans with the other mammals and noting some of the biological, that is, genetic, commonalities.

Now, I’m not saying that drama is the only art form that has connections to other academic disciplines; of course it isn’t. Prose literature has many of the same relationships to math, science, philosophy, or visual art. And I’m not saying that teachers shouldn’t supplement instruction from textbooks and labs with other sources than theater. I’ve found useful support in my English classes from music and, in a reverse of the principle I’m promoting here, I’ve used television sitcoms to demonstrate some structural points in theater classes. Of course, we’re talking here only about the texts and artifacts; with theater, there’s also the work of producing, acting, designing, and building the production which expands its usefulness as an adjunct to so many additional fields. In the spirit that whatever works best for the students is worth pursuing, I urge teachers and administrators to find the wherewithal in whatever corner of human experience they can. But theater and drama is arguably the most versatile, the most applicable, and the most malleable of the pertinent human endeavors for this effort. (And, on a practical level, the most convenient: a play is conceived to run about two hours or less; a novel, for example, can go on for hundreds of pages. In the classroom, that’s a significant consideration.) We should take note that one of humanity’s earliest impulses was to communicate, to teach or explain events of import to the community. That impulse predates written language so it was channeled into two other outlets: art and performance. The first theatrical performances must have occurred the first time a Neanderthal hunting party danced around the campfire to replay for the rest of the clan the day’s success. This surely led ultimately to modern theater, and, eventually, film, television, and even YouTube, but acting out stories, both actual and made-up, is one of our oldest tools for building a society. That suggests to me, at least, that there’s value in using that performative impulse to teach and learn about human endeavors of all kinds. It must have worked pretty well for all those eons—after all, we’re still doing it one way or another today.

16 July 2011

The Rap on Darwin

[I’m always interested in the uses of theater and theater techniques in other disciplines and circumstances where theater and “the real world” overlap. When I read an article in the New York Times’s science section last month about a hip-hop performance on evolution, I was fascinated by the confluence of science, theater, and teaching. This was especially true because the piece, The Rap Guide to Evolution by Baba Brinkman, is being presented not as a science project or a teaching tool, but as a theater performance. I decided it was interesting enough to republish the article, and the review of the show that appeared on the same date in the arts section of the Times, on ROT. Just to round off the posting, I dug up an earlier New York Times blog article for an earlier appearance of Brinkman in his Darwin rap. ~Rick]

By Dennis Overbye

Don’t sleep with mean people.

That’s a lesson some of us learn painfully, if at all, in regard to our personal happiness. That there could be a cosmic evolutionary angle to this thought had never occurred to me until I heard Baba Brinkman, a rap artist and Chaucer scholar, say it the other night. Think of it as the ultimate example of thinking globally and acting very, very locally. We are all in the process of recreating our species in our most intimate acts:

Don’t sleep with mean people, that’s the anthem
Please! Think about your granddaughters and grandsons
Don’t sleep with mean people, pretty or handsome
Mean people hold the gene pool for ransom.

Imagine this to a hip-hop beat accompanied with intermittent snarls and scowls, gangster slouches and crotch grabs and you have “The Rap Guide to Evolution,” written and performed by Mr. Brinkman. The show, which just opened for a summer-long run at the SoHo Playhouse in Manhattan, is an hour-and-a-half lecture on Darwin and natural selection disguised as a rant on the history of rap, gangs and murder in Chicago, relations between the sexes and his own stubborn creationist cousins.

Evolution has had many prominent defenders and proselytizers over the years, including Thomas Huxley when Darwin was alive, and Richard Dawkins now, but few as engaging and rhythmic as Mr. Brinkman, who has performed at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival six times, winning an award for the best new theater writing there in 2009.

Writing on NYTimes.com last year, Olivia Judson, the biologist and author, called the evolution rap show “one of the most astonishing, and brilliant, lectures on evolution I’ve ever seen.” On a humid night last week the crowd spilled out of the playhouse and down the streets of SoHo after the show, chatting about the technical and social aspects of natural selection.

The scene reinforced my sense that “geek rap,” as Mr. Brinkman calls it, is becoming one of the most popular and vital forms of science communication. Few exegeses of the Large Hadron Collider match Alpinekat’s “Large Hadron Rap” for punch and rhythm, and Stephen Hawking’s robot voice and puckish wit have spawned a host of imitators, like M C Hawking, rapping about black holes and entropy.

But when it comes to mixing the personal and the cosmic, it’s hard to beat the combination of evolution and hip-hop. As an illustration of the Darwinian principle of biomimicry, Mr. Brinkman compared the menacing persona of gangsta rappers to the bright colors adopted by a nonpoisonous snake to appear poisonous and thus scare off predators in a hostile environment.

Mr. Brinkman is no gangsta. By the usual cultural signifiers, Mr. Brinkman does not fit the rapper stereotype at all. A tall blond Canadian of Dutch ancestry, he was born in 1978 in a log cabin built by his hippie parents and their friends in the West Kootenays, a mountain range in British Columbia. His father runs a company replanting trees after logging operations—more than a billion replanted so far. His mother is a member of Canada’s Parliament.

Over a plate of oysters and tuna last week, Mr. Brinkman said that he had wanted to be a rapper ever since he was 10 and had performed on and off since he was 18, making up songs and singing to the rhythm of tree planting at his father’s business.

He was also a literature nerd as a child and wound up getting a master’s degree in medieval literature from the University of Victoria. Along the way he began writing a rap version of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. “Chaucer needed to be better presented,” he explained.

Mr. Brinkman took “The Rap Canterbury Tales” to the Edinburgh festival, where it sold out in 2004, which led to “a whole lot of gigs” and a book, he said.

Along the way his work came to the attention of Mark Pallen, a biologist at the University of Birmingham and author of “The Rough Guide to Evolution,” who had just done a reggae treatment of Darwin for a Jamaican colleague, and had also been using evolutionary methods to study Chaucer manuscripts. He invited Mr. Brinkman to Birmingham and, as he puts it, “we quickly slipped into an evolutionary groove.”

Dr. Pallen asked Mr. Brinkman if he could do for Darwin what he had done for Chaucer.

“Probably,” Mr. Brinkman answered. The only hitch was that it had to be done in five months, in time for the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, on Feb. 12, 2009, which was the occasion for a worldwide celebration of Darwin and evolution science.

Mr. Brinkman bought an audio version of “On the Origin of Species” and listened to it. Then he transferred it to an iPod Shuffle and listened to it again, with the chapters played in random order. “New connections emerged,” he said.

The result was what Dr. Pallen called “the first peer-reviewed rap.”

Mr. Brinkman performed the show at various venues around Britain for Darwin’s February birthday bash and then later on at Edinburgh and one sold-out week in New York in 2009. At one point, he said, he did 53 shows in three and a half weeks.

Fittingly, the show itself evolves. What was once a line about not sleeping with mean people, for example, has been expanded to a whole section. But the road has not been without bumps. Mr. Brinkman said that in Texas people walked out on a section of the rap which features a call and response of “Creationism is”—“dead wrong!”

When he was 19, Mr. Brinkman said, he wanted to be Eminem, selling a million records a year, but now he thinks he can see a lot of opportunities in geek rap. He said he was thinking of doing his next rap about climate change.

He paused over his pepper-crusted tuna, and said, “I’m very keen to do it, actually.”

[This article appeared in the print edition of the New York Times on 27 June 2011 (Sec. D [“Science Times”]).
The Rap Guide to Evolution opened 26 June for an open-ended run at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Van Dam Street, South Village. For tickets and performance information, contact (212) 352-3101 or rapguidetoevolution.com.]

* * * *

By David Rooney

If Terrence Malick’s majestic depiction of Darwinian natural selection in “The Tree of Life” was a little too solemn and symphonic for your taste, you might consider the more loquacious hip-hop alternative of “The Rap Guide to Evolution,” at the SoHo Playhouse.

An award winner at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, this ever-evolving show is written and performed by Baba Brinkman, an affable white rapper from Canada with a master’s in medieval and Renaissance English literature.

A 90-minute interactive musical lecture with amusing visual aids—courtesy of the projection designer Wendall K. Harrington—the show was developed at the invitation of Mark Pallen, a professor of microbial genomics at the University of Birmingham, England, after he saw Mr. Brinkman’s “Rap Canterbury Tales.”

Clearly Mr. Brinkman is not intimidated by challenging material. Nor is this simply a smarty-pants vehicle in which an erudite hipster flaunts his mad skills by molding his scholarly insights into “The Origin of the Species” to unorthodox beats (provided onstage by Jamie Simmonds, the DJ and music producer). Unlike more sophomoric hybridists of highbrow content and popular form, Mr. Brinkman brings genuine passion, curiosity and analytical skills to his subject.

Creationists may sneer, but Mr. Brinkman mounts an argument against intelligent design that is both brainy and entertaining. “It’s time to elevate your mind-state/And celebrate your kinship with the primates,” he raps.

Lest this sound purely science-geeky, the show also uses theories of natural selection and evolutionary psychology to chart developments in hip-hop: “You could thrive like Timberlake on a Timbaland beat/Or go extinct like Vanilla Ice and ’N Sync.” O.K., so the meters won’t give Stephen Sondheim sleepless nights (though pairing “huge manatee” with “humanity” has undeniable charm), but the rhythms are punchy.

Mr. Brinkman draws parallels between animal kingdom behavior and rap as a survivalist expression of power, pride, menace and sexual magnetism. And as he wryly points out, what is the ostentatious plumage of the male peacock but nature’s bling?

Tightly directed by Dodd Loomis, the production closes with a Q&A period in which audience input feeds some free-style addenda. While this stretches the performance somewhat, it also shows that Mr. Brinkman is more than an obsessively overstimulated Darwin fanboy with a talent for recitation.

His “them = us” thread about nurturing the group above the individual gives the show an overarching message. “All this hippy-dippy, love-thy-neighbor bio-socialism isn’t just me editorializing as a Canadian,” he says with disarming self-mockery, going on to explain how society might be reconfigured to eliminate hostility and fear.

Sure, it’s a rose-colored vision, but by the time Mr. Brinkman shares his “Lysistrata”-inspired anthem of sexual selection, “Don’t Sleep With Mean People,” you might start singing along.

[David Rooney’s review appeared in the New York Times on 27 June 2011 (Sec. C [“The Arts”]).]
* * * *

By Olivia Judson

The lights go down. The room fills with music—a pulsating hip-hop rhythm. And then, over the music, you hear the voice of Richard Dawkins reading a passage from “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin: “Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction. For only thus can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed.”

So begins one of the most astonishing, and brilliant, lectures on evolution I’ve ever seen: “The Rap Guide to Evolution,” by Baba Brinkman.

Brinkman, a burly Canadian from Vancouver, is a latter-day wandering minstrel, a self-styled “rap troubadour,” with a master’s degree in English and a history of tree-planting (according to his Web site, he has personally planted more than one million trees). His guide to evolution grew out of a correspondence with Mark Pallen, an evolutionary biologist and rap enthusiast at the University of Birmingham, in Britain; the result, as Brinkman tells us, is “the only hip-hop show to have been peer-reviewed.”

It is also, I suspect, the only hip-hop show to talk of mitochondria, genetic drift, sexual selection or memes. For Brinkman has taken Darwin’s exhortation seriously. He is a man on a mission to spread the word about evolution—how it works, what it means for our view of the world, and why it is something to be celebrated rather than feared.

To this end, he has concocted a set of mini-lectures disguised as rap songs. When he comes to human evolution, for example, he has the audience sing along in call-response fashion to “I’m a African”—a riff on an earlier song of that name by the radical, pan-Africanist hip-hop duo Dead Prez. The point of Brinkman’s version is that because humans evolved in Africa, we are all Africans: pan-Africanism meets population genetics. A few moments later, he’s showing a video of individuals of the social slime mold Dictyostelium discoidium streaming together while rapping about how cooperation evolves.

(Dictyostelium is notorious, in some circles, for its strange life-style. Usually, an individual Dictyostelium lives alone as a single cell. But when food is scarce, the single cells come together and form a being known as “the slug”; this crawls off in search of better conditions. When it finds them, the slug develops into a stalked fruiting body, and releases spores. But here’s the mystery: not all members of the slug get to make spores—and thereby contribute to the next generation—so why do they cooperate?)

It’s surreal stuff. But the clever part is that the show works at different levels. If you are up on evolution you will be amused by the in-jokes and amazed by the erudition. If you know nothing about evolution, you will certainly be entertained, and you may even learn something. (The delivery is so fast, and the material so broad, that it’s hard to tell how much will stick on one hearing; but for enthusiasts, there’s a CD. It’s good; I’ve been listening to it all afternoon.)

The lyrics are, for the most part, witty, sophisticated and scientifically accurate; and they lack the earnest defensiveness that sometimes haunts lectures on evolution. I spotted one or two small slips—a confusion of the praying mantis with the Australian redback spider (oh no!)—and there are a few moments of poetic license that a po-faced pedant might object to. Otherwise, it’s pretty rigorous.

Brinkman can’t resist taking a few pot-shots at creationists (“Darwin got it going on / Creationism is . . . dead wrong . . .”), and he devotes one rap to refutations of creationist arguments. But by and large, he proselytizes about evolution not by attacking its deniers, but by revealing the subject’s scope, from natural selection to the evolution of human culture and language. At the same time, he teases the audience, sends up post-modernism, mocks himself and satirizes the genre of hip-hop, all with fizzing energy and spell-binding charisma. Like I said, astonishing.

I saw “The Rap Guide to Evolution” last week in Barnstaple, a small town in the west of England. But this week, Darwin got it going on for a few days at the Bleecker Street Theatre, off Broadway. If you are in New York—go.

[Olivia Judson’s article appeared on her New York Times blog, “The Opinionator,” on 4 May 2010 (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/04/darwin-got-it-going-on/).

[Dirk Murray Brinkman, Jr., was born on 22 October 1978 in Riondel, an isolated town in British Columbia. Known as a "Lit Hop" artist and poet, Brinkman seems to have used the nickname “Baba” at least as far back as college, perhaps because of the family lore that he was born with a “Buddha-like” countenance. Brinkman and his family moved to Vancouver in 1980, where he still lives, between gigs, with his brother. After his 1996 graduation from high school, where his poetry and rap interests were born, Brinkman received a BA in English from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and then an MA in medieval lit from the University of Victoria in Greater Victoria, B.C. His studies included rhyming and he wrote an essay in 2002 called "The Beste Rym I Kan: The Emergence of Rhyme in English." While working in his family’s tree-planting business—he claims to have planted over a million trees himself over ten years—Brinkman began performing at music and fringe festivals in 2001 and earned recognition as a local talent when a video he produced was aired between programs on CBC Television. He began his rap career in 2003. During the winter, Brinkman appeared at local schools and in 2004, he produced
Rap Canterbury Tales, based on his undergrad thesis. Starting his own publishing outlet, Babasworld Prioductions, Brinkman published the rap and it gathered acclaim at home and in the U.K. after he presented it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (three times). With BBC Slam Champion MC Dizraeli, Brinkman formed the hip-hop group Mud Sun in 2008 and they released two albums. The Rap Guide to Evolution in 2009 spread Brinkman’s renown from Canada and the U.K. to the English-speaking world, including the U.S., though it has run into disapproval in the American South when he launches into a rejection of Creationism. Brinkman claims the script has been vetted for accuracy by both scientists and historians, however, and some of his raps have been incorporated in school curricula in the U.K., Canada, and Australia. In 2010, he released the Rap Guide to Human Nature, created for the 2010 Fringe Festival at which he also premièred his newest rap, Rapconteur, drawn from oral epics including Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and the Finnish Kalevala.]

11 July 2011

'Venus in Fur' (Studio Theatre, Washington, D.C.)

[A few days ago, I published a report on the revival of Peter Shaffer’s 1980 hit play, Amadeus. I saw two plays while I was in Washington last month; the second was the David Ives two-character play Venus in Fur, originally staged here in New York City in the spring of 2010 at the Classic Stage Company in the East Village. Here’s my appraisal of the Studio Theatre revival of Venus in Fur.]
The day right after I accompanied my mother to the stunning revival of Amadeus at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda (see ROT, 6 July), Mom and another friend had seats for Venus in Fur at the Studio Theatre. The performance of David Ives’s long one-act on Sunday, 29 June, was also a matinee, staged in the Studio’s small second-floor space, the Milton Theatre.

For those who haven’t heard of this play from last season in New York, it’s a metatheater play: a play about a play. This one’s a little like the painters’ frequent subject, the artist and his model; it can also be seen as a twist on the Pygmalion-Galatea story. When Vanda, an actress between roles, arrives late and unscheduled for an audition, playwright-director Thomas, closing up the studio after a discouraging session, grudgingly allows her to read for his new play, an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella, Venus in Furs. (Yes, he’s the guy whose name psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing borrowed to coin the term ‘masochism.’ Gives you an idea what territory we’re in.) The Austrian novella is something of a “metabook” itself: it centers on the reading of a book—a manuscript, actually. The manuscript’s the story of Severin, who’s so obsessed with Wanda—pronounced in German just like the name of the actress auditioning for the character—that he asks her to make him her slave, urging her to use him in increasingly debasing ways. “You don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism,” say Vanda in Ives’s play. “I’m in the theater.” With Thomas reading Serverin opposite Vanda, what begins as a fairly normal (if slightly—but only slightly—exaggerated) audition soon becomes a progressively seductive struggle for control. (Vanda arrives dressed in leather, wearing a dog collar, and carrying a trash bag full of props and costume pieces. Believe me, dressing the part and bringing props isn’t unheard of in the real world.) Ives shifts the action from the audition to the play-within-the-play and back again, and the actress and director engage in a game of give and take in which who gives and who takes shifts more often than the action. Gender roles are reversed (and then reversed again) in this acting tour de force, though the force (from the acting perspective, I mean) is mostly with the woman’s part. It’s no wonder that the actress who played the role Off-Broadway essentially became a star the day the reviews came out. (The actress in the D.C. production pretty much took all the reviews there, too. Vanda’s clearly the money gig in this script.)

Venus in Fur was staged in New York City from 26 January to 28 March 2010 by the Classic Stage Company at their theater on East 13th Street in the East Village. Directed by Walter Bobbie, it starred Wes Bentley as Thomas and Nina Arianda as Vanda. The reviews were generally strong, with the New York Times calling it a “tasty new comedy” and a “nifty, skillfully wrought entertainment, an enjoyable game of kitten-with-a-whip and mouse.” The New Yorker described Venus as a “wildly intelligent and sometimes frightening new play” and Back Stage, the weekly theater trade paper, asserted that “Ives turns what could have been a comic sketch into a devastatingly surreal examination of sex and power.” The New York Post said it was “exciting, but a challenge,” however, and “though filled with zingers,” reported the Daily News, Ives’s play “gets repetitive midway and leads to a lame conclusion.” (Arianda, a newcomer just out of NYU, stole almost all the reviews, won several awards for her performance, and landed the role of Billie Dawn in the recent Broadway revival of Born Yesterday starring Robert Sean Leonard and Jim Belushi. Last spring, Arianda was nominated for a Tony as best actress for that performance. She was also the subject of a recent New York Times profile by Patricia Cohen recounting her unusual background and career path: “A Storybook Ascent For One Actress,” 28 May 2011.)

Usually I start my theater reports with a critique of the play and then move into the production, ending with a description of the directing and acting. Let me turn that around this time and get right into the stage work in this 90-minute, intermissionless, one-act production at Washington’s Studio Theatre. Then we can talk about Ives’s play.

To begin with, the play demands a variation on what Timothy J. Wiles called “schizoid acting.” (The late Wiles, a professor of literature and drama at Indiana University, was the author of The Theater Event [1980].) Despite the misapplication of the word according to our understanding of schizophrenia today, this is an acting phenomenon that’s usually manifested by an actor appearing as both a performer enacting a role and a person with opinions and responses, a Brechtian performance. (It’s sometimes also called a “split” or “divided” actor.) In Venus, the actors don’t appear as themselves, but as two different characters: director Thomas, played by Christian Conn, and actress Vanda, Erica Sullivan, and the characters Severin and Wanda. This is complicated further because Conn and Sullivan aren’t just portraying Severin and Wanda, but Thomas and Vanda as Severin and Wanda—a performative palimpsest. The trick, of course, is making sure that the two sets of characters are distinctive enough to be differentiated but that the second characters, Severin and Wanda, have a recognizable component of the first, Thomas and Vanda. The ultimate burden is on the actors, of course, but both the director, David Muse, and, I gather, playwright Ives, had a hand in solving the acting problem.

Ives has indicated that when the actors are playing the diegetic roles, the characters in Thomas’s play inside Ives’s play (both plays have the same title), they speak with sham English accents to distinguish them from Thomas and Vanda. This also establishes an artificial quality to the diegetic play scenes different from the more natural scenes between the director and the actress. It was up to Muse to guide Conn and Sullivan to the right level of artificiality and keep them on the same scale, and the actors not only had to realize this dual dynamic but make the sharp break between the enacted play scenes and the outer, present-moment scenes when the actors behave realistically. Conn was saddled with two difficulties: first, his character isn’t an actor, so his performances as Severin have to be less vibrant than Vanda; second, Vanda gets all the best lines, as they say. (That this may be a scriptual imbalance is evidenced by the fact that several New York reviews gave Wes Bentley wan notices for his work in the part.) As the play unfolds, Conn’s character becomes less and less interesting except as a foil for Vanda. I don’t think Conn or Muse could have done anything with this situation; it’s endemic to the script, drawing all the attention to Vanda and, therefore, Sullivan. Thomas’s very ordinariness, which Conn had to play if the play is to work, puts him in Vanda’s shadow. Conn handled the shifts from Thomas to Severin well enough—they’re a little contrived in the text, I think—but the changes often aren’t as diametric as Vanda/Wanda’s so they’re not as showy or actorly.

Then the question becomes whether the actress playing Vanda is up to the job of carrying the play. I can’t compare Sullivan to Arianda (which is just as well), but I’ll say that Sullivan took charge of Vanda and the stage as thoroughly as Vanda took over the audition studio. She bursts into the drab little room, familiar to anyone who’s ever gone through an audition for Off-Off-Broadway or even Off-Broadway, where the amenities are fewer. I’ve been on both sides of that circumstance—as an actor and as a director hearing actors’ auditions. I’ve been in that room somewhere in New York City. I’ve also seen actors like Vanda seems to be blow into the audition, all discombobulated and disorganized, yammering about the traffic, the subways, the weather, whatever, in a whiny or braying or nasally voice. You just know they’re not going to measure up. (Believe me, in the real world, you can be as fooled as Thomas is about Vanda.) Sullivan nailed the entrance and the establishment of the character. What she went on to do, the aspect that’s not usually part of real life, was begin to intimate that the person we see isn’t necessarily the person beneath the leather bustier and rain-wet hair. (Many of us have heard the story, apparently true, of Barbra Streisand’s audition for Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It for You Wholesale, her first Broadway try-out. She entered the stage wearing a raccoon coat and mismatched shoes, pages of sheet music falling loose behind her, and loudly chewing a mouthful of gum. She sat on a stool center stage and stuck the gum under the seat. After the audition, Arthur Laurents looked under the chair—there was no wad of gum there at all. But they remembered Streisand!) Vanda intimates that she may not be exactly what she seems (or that what she hints at might not be true), and Sullivan made you wonder where, if anywhere, the facts lay. It was a sly performance that only hinted at another reality that existed in the actress’s head and never got revealed on stage.

Sullivan attacked the role with so much verve and energy it was hard to resist her performance, even if she hadn’t done so well. (Sullivan used a quasi-New Jersey/New York accent for Vanda, and either she deliberately selected a non-specific accent—perhaps because Vanda’s putting that on, too—or Sullivan couldn’t nail an actual regional pattern. The dialect coach was Gary Logan.) She shifted back and forth, not only between Vanda, the actress, and Wanda, the dominatrix, but among several variations of, particularly, Vanda, so mercurially and so credibly that it was astonishing. (If Arianda did this better, I can’t imagine what her performance could have been like!) She pulled props and costume bits from her plastic bag like a demented Santa Claus and adjusted the lights in the studio to create just the right atmosphere—taking over the job of director, designer, and stage manager—and essentially turning the audition into her own piece of performance art. Not just Vanda, but Sullivan was in complete control of this stage at all times, as soon as she got in the room. She was by turns seductive, cajoling, teasing, joking, controlling—whatever it took to get the part—though that may not be all Vanda’s after. Conn did as good a job as an actor, playing the (ahem) straight man, letting Vanda take over the audition as Thomas, who turns over his director’s authority to the actress almost unwittingly, and then falls under the thrall of Wanda when he becomes Severin. Thomas—but not Conn—displays a whiff of uncertainty from time to time, as if events were moving too fast for the man to follow. Conn’s (as well as Ives’s and Muse’s) problem, as I said, was that the role becomes almost invisible when Vanda’s at full tilt.

According to the Studio Theatre staff, director Muse had the production moved from a larger space, the Metheny Theatre on the first floor, to the tiny Milton Theatre to keep the production intimate. The Milton’s a small thrust theater whose acting area (it’s not a raised platform) is semicircular. I’d say it seats about 200 spectators, which really is ideal for this small play. Muse kept the actors moving in the audition room, which had a chaise longue, a table and chair (for the director), a vertical pipe in the center like a stripper’s pole, and a door and a window upstage on the whitewashed plaster wall, where the light controls (of which Vanda makes frequent good use) were located. (The set was by Blythe R. D. Quinlan, lit by Michael Lincoln.) It was spare, barren, drab, shabby—and depressing if you have to spend a day there (as Thomas has by the time Vanda rushes in). Although a normal audition would probably entail the actors just sitting and reading from the script (a reader had already left by the time Vanda gets there), but I never felt as if Muse were inventing action just to keep the scenes moving. Vanda (and Ives) has taken care of the rationale for the movement, which is pretty constant and often vigorous. Given the script, it never seemed anything but natural and organic, and Muse and the cast avoided the problem I saw in the CSC production of Ives’s New Jerusalem in 2008—the need to move the actors around a thrust stage just so all three sides of the audience could see them. I said that I didn’t think Muse could have made Thomas a more engaging stage presence, but in all other respects he handled the actors nicely. (He had a good deal of help with this from Ives, who said, “I always think a playwright’s job is to let actors do their stuff.” In Venus, he gave them a solid platform on which to do that.)

This all sounds terrific, and from a purely acting perspective, it was. You could teach an acting class from this work, both from the performances on view and from the demands of the script. (You know this script will turn up in every scene study class from New York to L.A. as soon as the play’s published.) In the Washington City Paper, Chris Klimek called the play “a wickedly ingenious dark comedy” presented at the Studio with “its whip-smarts fully intact.” Klimek praised the paired performances as “a knockout” and in the Washington Post, Peter Marks labeled the production “rollicking.” But Marks added that Venus “ultimately gives itself away too cutely” and concluded, in an apt phrase: “It’s not a major work, just a smart scoopful of fun, a delectably compressed actors’ pas-de-deux . . . .” Ives’s text, though, caused problems for me and I began to lose focus about halfway through. I’ve already quoted Joe Dziemianowicz in the New York Daily News, but Marilyn Stasio said in Variety: “The wit breaks down, though, once Ives starts piling on plot contrivances . . . .” As this suggests, the drama is phony—it’s ordained by the playwright, not organic to the circumstances, and Ives attenuates the conflicts in order to fill 90 minutes. I may not always have known exactly what was coming next, but I knew another set-up was going to come in which Vanda/Wanda would take power over Thomas/Severin. How many times can we watch this and not get antsy? Ives goes over my limit, and I started to twitch in my seat. This fundamental flaw is exacerbated by the fact that an awful lot of Ives’s play is made up of scenes from Thomas’s script. While the acting was fine, the lines are taken apparently pretty much verbatim from Sacher-Masoch (I’m guessing: I’ve never read the Austrian novel) and the 19th-century language is stiff ("Your heart is a vast stone desert"; "Insolent swine! How dare you speak to me in that tone! Bring me my other shoes").

Furthermore, the play’s a comedy, but Ives wants it to say something more so he lards Thomas’s dialogue with heady theories about sexuality and gender relations. The academic tenor of these passages turns them toward lecture. These two writing weaknesses were also evident in Ives’s New Jerusalem, his drama about the heresy hearing of Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza in 17th-century Amsterdam: the playwright filled the play with discussions and debates about Spinoza’s extremely dense philosophies, turning the script into the scenario for a historical role-play rather than a drama. Venus in Fur, Ives’s comic fillip on acting and sex, then, turns into a demonstration of 19th-century gender psychology with comic interludes. I’m afraid that no amount of brilliant acting or perceptive directing can buck that up beyond, maybe, half an hour. Then it bores me and I want to move on.
[Manhattan Theatre Club has announced that Nina Arianda will return to the role of Vanda in David Ives’s Venus in Fur in a planned limited Broadway revival this fall. Walter Bobbie’s production will begin previews at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on October 13, with an opening night in November that hasn’t been made public. Arianda’s co-star for the Broadway premiere has not been announced.]